This season, Survivor 32*, faced a lot of physical and technical hardships. An all-new cast. Brutal conditions. Three medevacs. Not to mention patience-testing logistical flukes, such as a full year elapsing between filming and airing, due to the fan vote aspect of Cambodia-Second Chance requiring it to leap-frog the earlier-filmed Kaoh Rong season. And so, Survivor 31 (as filmed) became Survivor 32*.
As the game progressed, and they moved away from the toxic wastedump at Brains beach, things started to settle down. The handy chart in production HQ read "No medical evacuations in 14 days!" Things were good, at least until Scot dumped water on them. And then, with the finish line in sight, Joe was felled by reward steak, and production had one final wrinkle to iron out, as the finale episode had to start a day earlier than planned (Day 35). So what did they do? They saw an iceberg on the horizon, and steered the boat directly into it. That's right: time for the juror-removal twist!
Let's forget about the results for a second. Just in concept, this was an awful, awful idea. Perhaps the most fundamental core concept of Survivor is that (after the jury phase starts, at least) while you're voting people out episode by episode, you still have to play in such a manner that those very same people whose game you ended are still willing to award you a million dollars at the end. This twist kicks down that door, shoves everyone aside and says, "Go ahead and toss out one of those people you pissed off. It's cool." Imagine if Russell Hantz could have done that! (Hint: He still would have lost, unless it was, like, remove six jurors.) True, Survivor has made some pretty horrific attempts to cripple this concept in the past, such as wistfully hoping Ozzy could get a million bucks in exchange for winning two challenges after hanging out on Redemption Island for a few weeks, catching fish. Having made bad choices in the past shouldn't give you a free pass to make a worse one in the future.
To be fair, this twist is less powerful than the no-blood-on-my-hands post-merge Redemption Island golden ticket was. But to be equally fair, it's also far, far more punishing to the juror removed. Neal has been publicly good-spirited about it, but still: what an insulting way to treat one of the better contestants this season featured (or to be more accurate, ignored). Neal was a huge fan of the show, tried to get cast for 10 years, and finally made it on. He gets himself into a majority, wins challenges, finds an idol, reaches the merge... then gets pulled for something that wasn't physically hindering him in any way. As he tries to process that, his one piece of solace is that he can still help shape the outcome of the season as the foreperson of the jury. Then production decides to yank that from him, too. The pre-season ad campaign hyped up this season as the most brutal, ever. Their treatment of Neal is perhaps the pinnacle of that brutality.
So anyway, Season 32*. This twist also implicitly gives jury-phase stats from this season an asterisk. For example, while it was certainly a wise strategic move for Michele to remove Neal, it also dramatically boosts her performance stats via a means to which no other winners had access. Her SurvAv score ranks as the 10th-highest ever by a winner, but it drops to 16th overall (middle of the pack) if Neal gets to vote for Aubry. Still, removing Neal probably didn't change the overall outcome of the season significantly. From Cydney's Ponderosa video, it's clear that Scot, Jason, and Julia were sufficiently bitter that they were never going to vote for Aubry under any circumstances, especially when they had a clearly physically dominant player in Michele (she won four challenges!) upon whom to lavish their accolades. If Neal stays in, Aubry loses 5-3-0. Maybe Neal changes Debbie's or Cydney's vote, but maybe not. Oh well.
Let's hope Survivor never repeats this twist again. Just because you've thought of something for a while doesn't mean you should do it. We're heartened that at least the show did not repeat this twist in Cambodia-Second Chance, which filmed after Kaoh Rong. Maybe they were unhappy with the results here, maybe they were saving it to have "the show evolving,"
Understanding what happened - The live game vs. the televised game
Jeff Probst sees only challenges and Tribal Council in person. So it's no surprise that his favorite contestants are (1) people who do well in challenges and/or (2) make big moves/put on a big show at Tribal (or ideally, all of the above). That's the part of the game that he experiences first-hand, the only time he interacts with these people, so of course he loves his Joey Amazings and Tonys and Hantzes. If you're a subtle, stealthy strategic player, making good friends in camp and rarely being the superstar in challenges, you're never going to catch the host's attention.
The same applies to the jury. After they're voted out, the jurors' only direct, unfiltered contact with the game comes from what they see at Tribal Council. They do get to interrogate fellow jurors as they depart the game (or choose not to, in the case of Scot and Jason with Cydney), but then the version of the game they hear can be heavily biased by the speaker's perspective. So what happens at Tribal matters.
In that light, Scot's (inane) Final Tribal pronouncement that Aubry and Tai "got weaker" and Michele "got stronger as the game went along" sort of makes sense. Michele won two immunity challenges, so the jurors saw her show up wearing the necklace two times (after being demonstrably terrible in the pre-merge tribal challenges). She verbally sparred with Tai (at length) at the Tribal Council in which he played his advantage, which no doubt pleased the people Tai betrayed, Scot and Jason. Furthermore, she intentionally saved this line of attack for Tribal Council, which caught Tai off-guard, giving her an even greater upper hand. Her last move in the game, coming on the heels of another challenge victory, was removing Neal from the jury. Which was a big deal, with its own special Tribal Council, and obviously, was performed in front of the jury. So from the jury's perspective, Michele did have a huge run of success at the end of the game. Even if it wasn't, you know, masterminding the voting out of the other players.
Does this excuse them from not talking to Cydney about what actually was going on? No. Should they have been paying better attention when Aubry laid out precisely which moves she made, and how she'd controlled the game? Or when she asked Michele if she'd even known Aubry and Tai were planning to vote out Cydney? Absolutely. But the sad fact is, most jurors have already made up their minds before Final Tribal. Scot and Jason may have been loudly ignorant of the actual state of the game when they voted, but they're hardly outliers. We don't see an obvious fix for this. Maybe the game really is flawed. At the very least, Scot's approach to his jury duty was. Bring back Uncle Cliffy next time instead, please.
When the editors editorialize
Another aspect of this season that bears exploring in more depth is: Is it okay for the editors to all but openly root for someone who didn't win, making the season a collage of their best moves and moments, while subtly burying the actual winner in a pastiche of perfunctory confessional blandness? Because it seems like that's what happened here. We were, like a sizable portion of the audience, of the opinion that Aubry (and the less-visible Cydney) were running the game, and obviously deserved to win. Michele's game, as presented on TV, consisted of jumping on board boots engineered by other people. She voted out only 4 people, the fewest ever by a winner, and Nick's boot, Debbie's boot, Julia's boot were all other people's plans. The only one she openly campaigned for was Jason (which, again, was Cydney's idea), and that's partially because she herself was the alternate target.
On the one hand, we're okay with this. If the editors want to attempt to present a more accurate story of the season and the game than the one the jurors thought they were voting for, that's certainly their prerogative. On the other hand, doing this does not come without consequences. Michele beating Aubry (handily) in the jury vote was a shocking outcome for an audience that had become invested in Aubry's journey. Many people were angry and disappointed, and venting on social media. That's not really fair to Michele. She played the game, she tried her best to win it, and she succeeded. As a viewer, you don't have to be happy about it, but it's also not cool to attack her for it. Let's just be sad that Aubry didn't win, and hope she gets another shot as soon as she wants one. (Also Cydney, who didn't even get to talk at the reunion.) Okay, everyone? Okay.
Final finale tepid take - Cold, heartless Probst. The Final 4 Reward Challenge was a near-exact copy of the family visit RC in the Worlds Apart finale, except... no loved ones. Then Probst intros the challenge in such a way that suggests loved ones might be coming out: "Today this challenge offers you an opportunity to get a little closer... [dramatic pause] to that goal." [No loved ones merge during the dramatic pause.] So not only were there no loved ones, but the final four might have thought for a few seconds that there would be. Harsh, dude.
To be fair, none of these people had actually seen the Worlds Apart finale before playing, so we guess it's kind of a win-win for them. Although they probably had seen the loved ones visit in the finale of the last Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty season, Cagayan. Oh well!
A grating vision of things to come
Okay, breathe, Pitman. Kaoh Rong is over. Let's put the ugliness of the ending behind us, shall we? What's coming up next?
Oh, it's lazy whiners vs. self-righteous, patronizing nags? Lovely. Let's hope it has a long, clunky title that takes up three lines on a hideous, stitched-together-from-the-corpses-of-other-logos season logo.
Oh look! It does!
Seriously, though, the confessionals in the preview seemed to regurgitate all the most eyeroll-inducing cliches that served as a nauseating distraction from Worlds Apart's otherwise solid early episodes (lecturing us about how great Blue Collar people are at working, and how there's something called "No Collar"), albeit removing the insipid White Collar stuff. Yes, that should all die down as soon as there's a swap. But it will probably be painful getting there, as the contestants fall over themselves to pontificate about the theme, in order to snatch precious screen time away from their 19 other competitors.
We wish they'd just called it Fiji 2.
Kaoh Rong Episode 14 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Cydney Gillon (4th place)
Exit interviews: Tai Trang (3rd place)
Exit interviews: Aubry Bracco (2nd place)
Exit interviews: Michele Fitzgerald (Winner)
Episode 14 Podcasts